09 / 2001
Santidhan (gift of peace) is an NGO that has worked to help women fish vendors organize to meet their own credit needs. It is situated in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu (India). This district has one of the largest concentration of fishing communities in the country. Approximately 200,000 people live in 40 villages along the west coast and at the tail end of the Coromandel coast. Fishermen here have fished for generations using ’cattamarans’and country boats. Income from fisheries is seasonal which makes the fisher folk vulnerable to exploitation by moneylenders and middlemen. Over the last ten years incomes have decreased because of declining fish catches, increased competition, especially from mechanized trawlers, and the rising cost of living. The use of innovative outboard motors and multi-hook lines have increased the potential catch for some. At the same time, however, they have also raised operational costs. The work is arduous and living standards are poor. Housing, sanitation and drinking water facilities are inadequate. Literacy levels are low and morbidity rates are high.
Women in this area have traditionally made nets. However, the advent of machine-made nets displaced many women net-weavers, forcing them to look for other work. Many such women took up fish vending. The lot of women fish vendors is hard. They are often caught in the vicious circle of debts and repayment to moneylenders. Their earnings are usually only enough to provide for the household for the day and, to buy the fish, they need credit. Transport is also a big problem, with women needing to commute longer distances to procure fish. Passengers often object to them carrying fish in passenger buses because of the smell. Sometimes unsympathetic bus conductors even evict them from the buses. Apart from all this, fisher women have to deal with household chores, drunken and abusive husbands, ill health and poor living conditions.
The origins of Santidhan lie in the recognition of women’s double burden and their oppression in fishing communities. It aimed at mobilizing and organizing women, promoting their long term security through savings, providing credit to expand their trade, liberating them from indebtedness and exploitation, evolving an appropriate credit cooperative structure, involving them in a continuous education process to enhance literacy skills, raising living standards, assisting in shared social action for the betterment of their lives, and helping them discover their own leadership capabilities.
The first savings ’sangam ’was formed in 1983 by a woman social worker in Eraumanthurai village to help widows, single women and women with many daughters (needing to raise money for dowry payment). Fisher women in this area were mostly engaged in net making, processing, storage and vending of fish.
As other ’sangams’ came up, an informal credit delivery system linked to thrift-and-savings societies was developed. The delivery system had simple procedures, was fast and allowed for flexible repayment schedules. Loans were provided for a variety of purposes including marriages, housing, purchase of nets and, especially, fish for vending. Repayment rates have been high. The aim of the system has been to help each group of women develop the skills to manage their own affairs as well as to manage other matters such as those dealing with admission of members, selecting beneficiaries for loans and repayment mechanisms. The emphasis has been on transforming the ’sangams’ into self-help groups. A district-level trust has been formed to facilitate inter-group lending.
Santhidan members have taken up a variety of campaigns including the rights of fish vendors to use public transport, better drinking water facilities, street lights, use of correct measures at fair price shops, and cleaning of wells and drains. They are involved in a campaign against the brewing and sale of illicit liquor. The campaigns have been quite militant. There have been street demonstrations, and, in the case of arrack shops, containers have been smashed. In most cases the campaigns have met with success.
Santidhan has organized seminars and training sessions on issues like health, unemployment, Indian Penal Code, Christian Marriage act, dowry, divorce, marriage laws and other socio-political issues. Santidhan animators and volunteers have received training in management and community building, first aid, preventive health care, post harvest fish handling and processing, and their role in the ’panchayati raj’.
Santhidan has grown to include 52 women’s groups, 3,625 members and a total savings of Rs3,450,000 at the end of 1994. The achievements have been many. Women vendors now have greater access to public transport. They are more conscious of their rights and can handle their problems better.
Women in this region have benefited from better organization. For example, a survey in May 1990 showed that over 50 per cent of the women vendors were using the public transport from 10 per cent in 1985. Women have also been able to gain public and government support on several issues. Women from this area have many things to tell women of fishing communities in other parts of India, who face similar problems. It is only by organizing to defend their rights and livelihoods that women of fishing communities will be able to deal with the manifold problems that face them on a daily basis.
Articles and files ; Book
Lucas, J., International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, Women in Fisheries Series : Women First, Report of the Women in Fisheries Programme of ICSF in India, International Collective in. Samudra Dossier Series, 1996 (India), 2, 85-88